Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Will Robots Take Your Job? by Nigel M. de S. Cameron

In Will Robots Take Your Job? A Plea for Consensus, Nigel M. de S. Cameron asks what is a more and more realistic question.  So, will a robot take my job?  Maybe.  It depends.  Ask the bank teller who was displaced by the ATM.  Ask the grocery store checker displaced by self-checkout stations.  Ask any former assembly line worker.  Ask the taxi driver soon to be displaced by self-driving cars.

De Cameron takes a broad view of the impact of mechanical intelligence and robot workers on employment trends.  Reviewing an array of research, he determines that "there is wide agreement that the development of Artificial Intelligence and robotics is set to have an enormous impact on the future of human work--driving up productivity, but in the process narrowing or completely shutting down many traditional jobs."  While some jobs are more at risk than others, "it would be unwise to bet on any particular human function being 'secure'--safe for our species to perform, safe from the rivalry of machines."

The levels of displacement run deeper than might be obvious.  For instance, we hear a lot about driverless cars.  Obviously, taxi drivers, truck drivers, and Uber drivers' jobs would be at risk.  But if, as expected, driverless cars lead to fewer people owning cars, jobs related to the manufacture and repair of cars would diminish.  Driverless cars would be safer, so auto accidents would drop, leaving ERs without a major client base.  The ripples go on and on.

Many observers point out that historically, when new technologies displace workers, new jobs or whole industries arise.  De Cameron is not so sure that there will be enough jobs to replace those taken by AI and robots.  Will Robots Take Your Job? is a readable introduction to this topic.  It asks more questions than it answers, and ends up wishy washy on the questions he asks.  It will definitely get you thinking about whether you need to reexamine your own career choices.


Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Injection Burn, by Jason Hough

In the first three books of the Dire Earth Cycle, Jason Hough tells the story of the Builders, who put a space elevator on earth and introduced a virus that killed off most of humanity.  Fast forward several centuries, and mankind has bounced back.  Using Builder technology as a spring board, they have developed the ability to quickly travel great distances through space.  Injection Burn, book 4 of the Dire Earth Cycle, starts with the crew of the Wildflower.  They have travelled to the Builders' home world.  To their great surprise they meet up with Skyler Luiken and his crew.  Skyler, a key player in the events in the first 3 books, and his crew left earth in a builder ship.  Due to time dilation, little time has passed for them.  The Wildflower crew, stunned to meet these important historical figures, team up with Skyler's crew to fight the Scipios, a race who has enslaved the Builders.

Now that I have successfully made a very exciting sci-fi story sound pretty dull, I have to say Injection Burn is great fun to read.  Hough writes extended action scenes so full of detail that you can vividly see the whole thing in your mind.  He provides the details, the sights and sounds and actions and reactions.  The future science and mechanics of zero-g and space travel are not taken for granted.  The alien species are imaginatively created and described.

In short, if you like your sci-fi science-y and action-packed, with lots of aliens, interplanetary travel, and inter-species war, while leaving out the romance and philosophical interludes, Hough fits the bill.  Injection Burn continues and fills out the story of the first 3 books.  If you haven't read them, you won't be lost in Injection Burn, but the background certainly adds to the enjoyment of this new book.  And, just as he did with 1, 2, and 3, he is publishing 4 and 5 in rapid succession, so you don't have to wait long to see how the action continues!  Escape Velocity comes out next week!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Mad About Trump, by MAD Magazine

MAD magazine used to be, and sometimes still is, very funny.  In Mad About Trump they gather together a wide array of satirical comics, fake ads, campaign posters, etc., in a collection skewering President Trump.  The result is rather unfunny.

On the one hand, they follow the standard Trump comedy lines: he has funny hair, he has orange skin (Now it's OK to make fun of someone's skin color, as long as his name is Trump.), he has a lot of money and flaunts it, he sends spontaneous tweets.  Trump provides us with lots to make fun of and lots to laugh about, but the MAD folks spend too much time laughing at the obvious.

On the other hand, they take the vitriolic tone of anti-Trump comedians and perpetuate the canard that Trump is nothing but a sexist, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, moronic, joke of a political candidate and now office holder.  They are following the path of all those comedians who have given up humor for spiteful ad hominem criticism.  As they have learned, their audiences respond to this.  (Comedian: "I hate Trump."  Audience: "Hahahaha! Such wit!  Such astute political insight!  Such unabashed truth!")

So, yeah, as you can tell, I'm a conservative who voted for Trump.  You might not be able to tell, but I do have a sense of humor.  Some of the anti-Trump humor in Mad About Trump was funny, but mostly MAD's easy shots of left-wing Trump overtook any genuine political satire and the universally funny material they have long been known for.


Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Art of the Classic Sports Car, by Stuart Codling, photography by James Mann

Something about the pictures in The Art of the Classic Sports Car, written by Stuart Codling with photography by James Mann, makes the featured cars seem like so much more than transportation.  They are works of art.  For most of us, a car is a means to get from point A to point B.  But when a special car drives by and catches your eye, the aesthetics and engineering and sheer fun make you forget about practicality.

Focusing primarily on mid-twentieth century sports cars, The Art of the Classic Sports Car covers makers you know and makers you might not (at least that I didn't know).  Some of these might be seen prowling your neighborhood streets--I still see 240Zs from time to time--but most of them will only be seen in a museum or auction house.  A couple of these have sold in recent years for millions.

The text is interesting, giving some history, anecdotes, and technical information about each model.  But the stars of the show are the photos.  The cars are pristine, and the photos bring out their glory.  I love the fact that these cars, for the most part, are not "luxuirious" as we tend to think of cars today, with the bells and whistles that tend to be superfluous.  The luxury is in the clear craftmanship and love of design that is reflected.

If you are a car lover, pick up this book, but before you do be prepared for your heart to race a little.  You might also want your wife to change the passwords on your bank account, too, so you can't give in to the tempation to run out and try to find one of these beauties to buy.


Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Worn Out by Obedience, by Ron Moore

As pastor of a large multi-campus church, Ron Moore has seen and experienced his share of spiritual burnout.  In Worn Out by Obedience: Recovering from Spiritual Fatigue, Moore offers hope to those of us who are tired and weary.  Much of the book is guided by David's experience in Ziklag.  A self-imposed exile, during this time he was far from God, listening to his own counsel, and stagnating in his own poor decisions.

Sometimes we feel like this: "I feel that God has left me alone.  Therefore, my inclination is to find a place away from God."  Like David, we self counsel (never a good idea).  We "lost a sense of intimacy with God and became indifferent toward spiritual things."  We "surrendered to sin--and settled for a life of disobedience, disconnected from God."  We "no longer fight the tempation" but "embrace the sin."

This state of spiritual being could be due to flagrant rebellion.  But for many Christians, it comes as a result of weariness from service, even in a life of consistent obedience and faithful Christ following.  As Charles Swindoll wrote, "Most (yes, most) Christians . . . have very little dynamic and joy in their lives."  Moore shares many presonal stories from Christians who have faced these feelings.

His diagnosis is spot on, and his remedies are welcome.  The decision is our own to leave Ziklag, and the Holy Spirit offers us power to do so.  David himself provides "five steps of true repentence" that we can follow as a path out of Ziklag.  Even better, Moore writes about staying out of Ziklag in the frst place.

Most important of all, Moore reminds us that even when "the internal disappointment and external performance . . . wear[s] us down," we can remember that "our identity is in Jesus."  Once we are his, we are his forever.  Even knowing and accepting this, I wish Moore would have spent more time on that disappointment Christians experience, that lack of "dynamic and joy."  Why does it seem so elusive?

I would be surprised if you read this book as a Christian and didn't find some resonance with Moore's exposition.  I certainly saw myself in Ziklag and appreciate his pointing the direction out.

 
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

I have really enjoyed movies based on Philip K. Dick's books and stories.  I have rarely enjoyed his books and stories.  PKD fans, of course, will say I'm too shallow or something and don't appreciate great literature, settling for the dumbed-down Hollywood versions.  I respond that it's a matter of taste.

I haven't seen any of the TV series The Man in the High Castle, but I suspect my experience will line up with my history.  The book, while it follows a more traditional narrative structure than some of his other novels, isn't very good.  From what I've heard and seen on the previews, the TV show is probably better.

In The Man in the High Castle, Japan and Germany won World War 2 and each occupy respective regions of the former United States.  A popular book, banned in Nazi-occupied areas, presents an alternative future in which the U.S. won the war.  That's kind of a fun idea: alternative fiction about a work of alternative fiction which more closely matches our reality.  The author, who is reputed to live in a high castle, is both admired and targeted.

The loosely related story lines never came together for me very well.  The representation of west coast cutlure under Japanese rule is a little bit interesting, but not really.  The idea that technology developed much more quickly under the Nazis--they are sending manned missions to Mars and Venus--is implausible.  None of the personal stories or disparate plot lines appealed to me.

Dick has enough good ideas here that I will still check out the TV show at some point.  As fascinating as the ideas behind his writing are, the fact that for the ideas to be shaped into a decent story requires other writers' refinement and explication tells me that PKD's influence is far greater than his talent.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez

Looking for a beach read?  Daniel Suarez's Kill Decision is an exciting mix of political thriller and techno thriller.  There are dark forces with deep ties to the U.S. government that want to promote the use of lethal autonomous drones as the next stage of warfare.  Thankfully there is a rogue group of military specialists with the freedom to act independently and with a mission to stop the drone warfare.

With the mysterious Odin at the helm, this group travels the globe in response to a series of related attacks.  The attacks are initially called bombings, but it becomes clear that it's drones.  Odin and his team, whose autonomy, attitudes, and methods reminded me of the team on Agents of SHEILD, intervene in Africa, saving a research scientist who specializes in ant colonies from a drone/bomb attack.  She specializes in the swarming behaviors of aggressive ants, and they learn that her research and computer models have been coopted by those designing and deploying the drone attacks.

Odin, the professor, and Odin's team find themselves targets of the attacks and have to go off the radar to track down the origin.  The story is full of action (admittedly sometimes rather implausible) and narrow escapes.  The science of the drones is frighteningly realistic.  The drones are autonomous, using facial recognition and other software tools to hone in on their prey.  This prevents jamming signals from interrupting their missions, and allows the drones to function at any distance from the programmers.  In addition, they communicate with one another with artificial pheremones, mimicking actual insect communication, an interesting concept that I had not thought of before.

For all I know, this technology is only a short step away from reality.  Suarez makes it very believable, and  crafts an exciting story around its use.  Kill Decision won't make the reading list for American Lit 101 at your local college, but for a fun, exciting page turner, it hits the spot.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

The World of Urban Decay 2, by Martin ten Bouwhuijs

Martin ten Douwhuijis loves to take pictures of decaying buildings.  Strangely enough, you may find yourself loving to look at pictures of decaying buildings in his book The World of Urban Decay 2.  (This is his second book of photographs, following the 2013 publication of The World of Urban Decay.)

He writes that the "emptiness and the natural decay" of places that have been abandoned for decades "make some places even more beautiful than when they were in use."  As his photographs clearly demonstrate, there is plenty of beauty in these abandoned places, but it takes an odd sense of taste to declare that they are more beautiful. . . .  Well, to each his own.

The sense I got from his photographs was more like sadness or longing.  Sadness, that places that held such beauty, beauty that is still evident despite peeling paint, water damage, collapsed floors, have been neglected, many of them past the point of recovery.  As anyone who has tried to remodel an old house or building knows, sometimes it's more efficient to tear down the old structure than to repair it and bring it up to modern living standards.  Also longing, recognizing that our age of cookie cutter homes and bland architecture was preceded by the times in which some of these places were built.

Ten Bouwhuijs's affection for his subject matter certainly shows in his photographs.  At the end, he gives more extensive notes about the places he features.  Some are slated for demolition, some may be renovated.  In order to photograph some of them, he crossed over barriers, through windows, or behind locked doors, such is his passion to see these neglected rooms.

He keeps the locations, scattered throughout Western Europe, mostly anonymous, fearing that other urban explorers with less appreciation and respect for the places will invade.  Through his eyes, we get to explore and get a glimpse into the past.  You will enjoy his hauntingly beautiful photographs.


Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

This article from The Sun has some nice examples from the book:
https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2992407/abandoned-buildings-europe-martin-ten-bouwhuijs/

Friday, June 9, 2017

Chokehold, by Paul Butler

Paul Butler's Chokehold: Policing Black Men is a rather difficult and uncomfortable book to read.  Butler, a former prosecutor, examines crime stats and societal trends, calling on black men to challenge the status quo and work to change the system that works against them.  That is one of the cornerstones of Butler's book: white supremacy created and perpetuates the U.S. system of law enforcement, and the suppression of black men is absolutely by design.

If that sounds too strong, consider Butler's words:
  • "Not only is the Constiution . . . insufficient to protect black people from police abuse, it actually aids and abets the police abusers."
  • "The law is not neutral or objective but actually prepetuates white supremacy."
  • "The system is now working the way it is supposed to, and that makes black lives matter less."
Butler uses the imagery of a chokehold--a means of physical restraint that "coerc[es] submission that is self-reinforcing."  In other words, it "justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance beacuse of the vice grip that is on it."  Black men are pressured by the police and by society to come into compliance, but they can't because of the chokehold on them.

The stats Butler presents are familiar and undeniable.  There is no question black men get a bad rap, in sentencing, in the extra attention they draw by cops on patrol, and in the limitations they face in school, the job market, and the housing market.  Butler acknowledges that crime rates are higher among black men, but that's part of the chokehold.  Crime rates are higher in black neighborhoods, so there are more patrols, so there are more arrests and convictions.  Round and round.

Butler has a definite agenda, so his presentation isn't exactly balanced.  I would have hoped to see more time spent on progress made since the Civil Rights movement.  Seeing black teachers, executives, doctors, engineers, and even presidents is no longer a novelty.  It's commonplace.  Surely having black men in positions of power and wealth means something.  On a related point, he does not acknowledge that the there is a flip side to the chokehold.  Believe it or not, most white people want to see black people succeed, for the sake of society as well as for the sake of their black friends and neighbors.  My white son is entering college.  It is a truism that more admissions to elite schools and scholarships would have been available to him were he black.  I have seen and heard plenty of anecdotal accounts of preferential hiring of black men and women in the workforce.  I am not judging such scholarships and hiring, but I think such policies should be acknowledged.  Butler makes a big deal about the chokehold being "an employment stimulus plan for working-class white people, who don't have to compete for jobs with all the black men who are locked up."  Couldn't it also be said that black men who manage not to get locked up have an even greater advantage in the colleges admissions market, the job market, and, significantly, the marriage market, over their black peers?

Chokehold is challenging, and more radical than I would have thought it would be, coming from a former prosecutor.  Butler's advice for black men who are trying to avoid arrest and guidelines for action once detained or arrested are bleakly helpful.  His proposals for action are, for the most part, realistic, if not a little radical.  He suggests that the maximum prison sentence for any crime be limited to twenty-one years, that we decriminalize low-level offenses, and that we spend more on health care and less on police.  Oh, and eliminate the prisons: "Black men will only be free, literally and figuratively, when prisons are no more."

So, yes, he's a radical, and will lilkely be dismissed out of hand by many conservatives and law-and-order types.  It's easy to pull FBI statistics to justify more policing in black neighborhoods and explain away failed black schools and communities.  But Butler is right on many points.  You don't have to join him in embracing critical race theory and the practices and proposals of the movement for black lives to acknowledge that structural racism has been, and to varying degrees still is, a factor in American society.  Even if we don't fully buy in to Butler's exposition and proposals, we can still work for a better future for all of our friends and neighbors of every race.


Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Dire Earth: A Novella, by Jason Hough

In 2013, Jason Hough published The Dire Earth Cycle, a trilogy of three books that were released within a few weeks of each other.  This year, he is releasing two more, in May and June.  In the meantime, he wrote The Dire Earth: A Novella to serve as a prequel to book 1, The Darwin Elevator.

The central feature of The Dire Earth Cycle is a mysterious space elevator of alien origin and a related plague that wipes out almost all of earth's population.  The Dire Earth takes place a few years after the space elevator is established, and chronicles the beginnings of the world-wide plague.  What seems like a series of unrelated vignettes comes together to build the central cast of characters for The Darwin Elevator.

Hough writes great action sequences.  His characters are varied and engaging.  The set-up in The Dire Earth--the elevator, the spread of the plague, the individual fights to survive--lay a solid ground work for the series.  If you've read The Dire Earth Cycle, pick this up.  If you haven't go ahead and start with The Dire Earth.  This is fun, action-packed, sci-fi.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Run With Me, by Sanya Richards-Ross

Track and field fans, or just casual fans who like to watch the Olympics, know Sanya Richards-Ross.  The Jamaican born sprinter, among other successes in her career, medalled in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games, and has been recognized as one of the world's fastest women.  Her new book Run With Me: The Story of a U.S. Olympic Champion is written to introduce young readers (I would say older elementary school age and up) to her career and inspire them to work hard and follow their dreams.

Even as a very young girl in Jamaica, everyone recognized that Sanya had a gift for speed.  Her father encouraged her to work hard and coached and supported her from a very young age.  The support of her father and the rest of the family was one of the notable themes of Run With Me.  The whole family moved from Jamaica to the U.S. in order to support her running career.  Her sister came to watch her work out.  Her dad was always there filming her races and critiquing her performance afterward.  Mom travelled with her around the world as Sanya became more well-known and successful.  Her family really did run with her, contributing greatly to her success.

Sanya's family's support was only part of the equation.  She has obvious physical traits that help her run, but her relentless hard work and passion to succeed drove her to win.  Sanya encourages her readers to follow her example and work hard, but more than that, she encourages them to follow God and find their identity in him.  "God doesn't look at our athletic performance.  He cares about our faithfulness.  Running is just what I do.  It's not who I am."

Noting that her hero, Marion Jones, had been sanctioned and stripped of her medals after she admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, Sanya writes:
I committed to myself and to God that if I ever became a role model for young girls, I'd give them something real and tangible they could hold on to.  I never wanted anyone to have a reason to rip my posters off their wall or strip my medals away.
She ran in her career with integrity, getting her fuel from natural foods, not from illegal substances.  In light of her commitment, however, I wondered about something she did not mention in this book: her abortion before the 2008 Olympics.  At the peak of her training, she became pregnant out of wedlock, and decide to abort her child in order to compete at the Olympics.  Granted, this is not a violation of any rules for competing, but killing one's baby, to me, is a much bigger deal than PEDs.  I am delighted to read elsewhere about her turning to God and the healing that he offers, and pray that other women will learn from Sanya's pain and choose life, and that women who have chosen abortion will find healing as she has.

Run With Me is full of scripture and reminders to keep one's athletic and other gifts in perspective.  Budding track stars can learn from Sanya that, no matter how fast God has made you, becoming a winner takes constant hard work.  But no matter what, we should put our faith in God and trust him.  Her track career is over, but Sanya Richards-Ross has many years of inspiring others ahead of her.


Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Term Limits, by Vince Flynn

Before Vince Flynn started his long-running series of Mitch Rapp novels, he jumped into the world of political thrillers with Term Limits.  This novel, Flynn's first, is set shortly before the events of the first Mitch Rapp novels, but clearly in the same timeline (some of the characters carry over into the Rapp novels, and some of the events referred to in Term Limits are important in the Rapp novels).

An assassin takes out three key government officials within a few hours, and a set of political demands is issued.  It's up to the young, idealistic congressman Michael O'Rourke to get to the bottom of the assassinations, which have the potential to spring some leaks that Washington power players would rather not be sprung.

Term Limits is a great start for a first-time novelist, filled with political intrigue, covert action and intel, and cynicism about the corruption endemic to Washington, D.C.  Readers of the Rapp books will agree, I think, that Flynn definitely improved his game as the series developed, but Term Limits is strong enough to demand returning Flynn's other books.